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The Good Old Days

Were they really as good as we think?

On a visit to the St. Louis Gateway Arch this summer, I bought a copy of a book I couldn't help noticing in the gift shop: The Good Old Days—They Were Terrible! This book, written by Otto L. Bettmann and published in 1974, contains photographs and written descriptions of life in the "Gilded Age" in the United States, during the years 1870–1889. This was a post-Civil War period of rapid change, growth, and increasing wealth in this country, and an age for which we sometimes have a collective and nonsensical yearning.

The nonsense of this yearning is the main point of this book. As the author says in his introduction, "I have always felt that our times have overrated and unduly overplayed the fun aspects of the past. What we have forgotten are the hunger of the unemployed, crime, corruption, the despair of the aged, the insane, and the crippled. The world now gone was in no way spared the problems we consider horrendously our own, such as pollution, addition, urban plight or education turmoil." The author goes on to encourage us toward greater optimism about our own age and about our future, knowing we have made real advances and will continue to move forward.

He then illustrates his point with 200 pages of images and descriptions of nuisances we no longer face—pigs roaming city streets, sidewalks filled with trash, and manure-laced traffic jams born of complete and unmitigated chaos. He shows the horrors of life for the mentally ill, addicted, poor, and naïve. And he uncovers the spreading roots in this period of some of our modern social problems, from alcoholism and drug addiction to street gangs and corruption.

So along with gratitude for indoor plumbing and the Food and Drug Administration, I felt a little disenchantment as I read this book. It's funny, because I already knew most of the broad facts. I knew about child labor, poor hygiene, Yellow Fever, mortality rates, corrupt public officials, unfair employment practices, and pronounced and visible class distinctions. But learning some of the details—and especially seeing pictures—made it all more real. And apparently this reality crushed my own unrecognized and irrational ideals about the "good old days."

So if I knew that life was—in so many ways—rougher back then, why did I still idealize those times without even realizing I was doing so? Why do any of us look back with fondness on times we didn't see, or worse, with whitewashed views of times we did see? Some of us even long for and idealize the future, beyond our own lifetimes, imagining that so many of our problems will be solved by future generations and ignoring the certainty that our descendents will also discover and invent new problems we can't foresee.

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From Issue:
Today's Christian Woman, 2010, August
Posted August 3, 2010

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